Obama, Bush, Clinton and Carter: You Must Declare a National State of Emergency on Hate

With the blood-soaked rise of hate crime in the streets and racist presidential rhetoric in the White House, Americans worry whether America is devolving into a republic of hate. Based on lives taken and values threatened, now is the time for a declaration of a "National State of Emergency on Hate." But instead of a complicit President Trump, Americans must call on four private citizens to act: former presidents Obama, Bush, Clinton and Carter need to declare this state of emergency—and convene a National Summit on Hate and Democracy.

With a Pueblo, Colorado synagogue bombing just recently averted by the FBI, mere weeks after the one-year anniversary of the massacre of 11 Jews at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburg, Ohio, the state of our union is less strong and more divided. Emotionally and empirically, America is in a state of hate. Hate crime rose three years in a row, and hate crime violence is now at a 16 year high.

Scholars have at least two theories to explain what many find morally incomprehensible: we are killing, shooting, stabbing, and beating one another based on religion, race, ethnicity, gender and sexual identity at a record rate. First, some hate crime is the violent expression of political speech. Second, that hate crime spreads like an infectious disease.

The political speech of the Trump campaign and administration hasn't merely been partisan. It's been racially poisonous. While hate crime normally declines in the final quarter of the year, it rose in the quarter preceding Trump's inauguration. Tragically, it has continued to rise since. This president's speeches, tweets, and policy announcements correlate with hate victimization. For example, when President Trump announced his Muslim travel ban, Americans witnessed the worst spike in Islamophobic hate crime since September 11, 2001.

None of this is surprising to me, as a former president and CEO of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), founded by Blacks and Jews to combat hate crime. This is all too close to home, not just in terms of our institutional memory but in the most literal sense: In August 2016, just before Trump's election, I received anxious calls from members of the Houston NAACP branch, whose office was surrounded by White Nationalists wearing White Supremacist garb and armed with assault weapons—their leader festooned with a Trump campaign cap.

It is not only the large-scale hate massacres like those at the Mother Emanuel AME Church, Tree of Life Synagogue, Poway Chabad Synagogue, and El Paso Wal-Mart that demand action. It's also individual lives being grotesquely threatened and interfered with, like a the Hispanic man in Milwaukee who earlier this month had battery acid thrown in his face, while allegedly being asked, "Why did you come here and invade my country?" With countless acts of hatred on our streets and in our tweets, ever more Americans are at each other's throats—not just metaphorically in noxious online debates, online, but physically, intimately, face to face.

Whether presidential speech causes or merely correlates with hate crime is unprovable. What's undeniable is the vulnerability of Americans not protected from the consequences by secret service agents and bulletproof glass.

Some scholars consider hate crimes to be akin to an infectious disease, spreading from person to person, community to community. A New York University study suggests how hate is spread with violent impact. This study examined 532 million tweets from 100 American cities and found that the more race-based hate speech there was on Twitter, the higher were the rates of actual hate crime. This study was conducted five years before the Trump presidency began; it's patently clear we should be even more concerned about similar mechanisms driving the rising hate crime today.

Hate crime did not begin with Trump's campaigns and will not end with his presidency, but with hate crime as high as it is, now is the time for bold action.

In 2009, President Obama declared a national state of emergency based on the danger of an actual infectious disease, swine flu. Only American presidents have the legal authority to declare a national emergency—with at least one-hundred provisions available.

Pursuant to the National Emergencies Act, President Trump has broad authority to declare a national emergency. But he is unwilling—and besides, morally unqualified—to declare a legal state of emergency on hate.

A civic (and moral) declaration of a national emergency on hate, however, requires neither constitutional interpretation nor statutory application. This declaration would accomplish three objectives in short order. First, the declaration would demonstrate the urgency of record hate violence and hate crime. Second, the declaration, even without the force of law, would make clear that addressing hate is not the exclusive responsibility of law enforcement but inclusive duty of all Americans. Third, this declaration would be a moral call to action to members of the business community, houses of faith, journalists, philanthropists and academics, as well as ordinary citizens, to marshal our resources to fight hate before the crimes, hashtags, funerals, vigils, injuries and deaths. These critically needed resources are civic, moral, financial and analytic—not merely prosecutorial or investigatory.

Still, such a declaration requires the moral authority of a president to resonate with all Americans. The incumbent has forfeited that authority long ago. But Americans can still prevail upon four fellow citizens, all former presidents, to call on us to come together. Specifically, we can ask citizens Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Jimmy Carter to use the convening power of the Obama Foundation, George W. Bush Foundation, Clinton Foundation, and the Carter Center to declare a National Emergency on Hate and convene a National Summit on Hate and Democracy.

This summit would convene civic, philanthropic, moral, business and academic leaders to explore strategies for not only eliminating hate but also establishing and strengthening civic bonds of Americans one to another. It would build consensus on strategies to not only decrease hate crime but de-arm hate through universal background checks, red flag laws, and an assault weapons ban. To be clear, this summit would not be a four-way conversation among presidential elder statesmen but a nationally televised citizens assembly led by our former presidents. This summit would not only pragmatically address hate, but aspirationally inspire a greater love of country—at a moment when we are so violently divided.

With the dangerous spread of hate and the violent rise of hate crime, we desperately need all former presidents, from both parties, to help us heal from the devastation exacerbated by their unworthy successor.

Citizens Obama, Bush, Clinton and Carter, your country is calling.

Cornell William Brooks is Director of the William Monroe Trotter Collaborative for Social Justice and Professor at the Harvard Kennedy School. He served as the 18th President and CEO of the NAACP.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.